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Canadian swimmer Penny Oleksiak finds life balance, pool speed in time for Tokyo

Canadian swimmer Penny Oleksiak finds life balance, pool speed in time for Tokyo
Sports
Penny Oleksiak has travelled the mental, emotional and social arc many adolescents take to early adulthood, all the while carrying with her the mantle of Olympic champion and multi-medallist.

Getting perspective on her feats as a 16-year-old wunderkind in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 took time and work.

At 21, Oleksiak has a more mature lens on that success than she did at 17 or 18 when she wondered why she didn’t swim that fast all the time.

When Oleksiak’s coach tells her at the pool she can swim faster, and a random person in a grocery store tells her the same day she’s a national heroine, Oleksiak feels better equipped to process both scenarios.

The COVID-19 pandemic postponed the Tokyo games by a year, which gave Oleksiak another year of maturation but also stripped her of opportunities to race.

The Olympic Games will be Oleksiak’s first international meet since the Knoxville Pro Series in January 2020 — a span of a year and a half.

The pandemic was one more element on a young woman’s plate already full with growing up while striving to stay among the world’s fastest swimmers.

“Literally, it’s felt like the longest time ever,” Oleksiak said. “I feel like I’ve aged 15 years. I’m not kidding you.

“I feel like I’ve gone through more in the last four or five years than I have in my 15 years prior to that. I feel like I’ve learned a lot and really learned a lot about myself.

“It’s just been a big five-year learning experience.”

During that time, Oleksiak tackled life’s rites of passage. She moved out of the family home into her own apartment in Toronto and began dating Wilfrid Laurier University basketball player Adnan Begovic.

She’s become friends with Canadian tennis star Bianca Andreescu and American swim legend Michael Phelps.

Oleksiak was a raw, emerging power in a body shaped like a torpedo — over six feet long and tapered with slim hips and strong shoulders — when she exploded onto the swim scene in Rio in 2016.

She was a virtual unknown because she hadn’t raced in either Toronto’s Pan American Games or the world championships in 2015.

In Rio, Oleksiak tied with American Simone Manuel for gold in the women’s 100-metre freestyle in Olympic-record time, took silver in the 100-metre butterfly and anchored the Canada’s freestyle relay teams to a pair of bronze medals.

The first Canadian to win four medals at a Summer Games and Canada’s youngest ever Olympic champion then had to come to grips with her sudden success and also getting beaten, sometimes by her own Canadian teammates, in subsequent international races.

“When you’re a young woman, young man or young person and you go to an Olympic Games and you have tremendous success at the age of 16, it’s actually very daunting from that moment forward,” Swimming Canada high-performance director John Atkinson said.

“More or less overnight, her world changed. She’s absolutely grown in dealing with the roller-coaster ride of life and of sport together.”

After Oleksiak was shut out of medals in individual races at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, she took a break from swimming.

She was carefully managed at the 2019 world championship in South Korea.

Oleksiak hadn’t qualified the 100-metre butterfly at domestic trials, but did in the 200-metre freestyle which she hadn’t raced in Rio.

Oleksiak swam a personal best time to finish sixth in her first international 200 free final.

She, her coach Ben Titley and Atkinson then made the decision for her to withdraw from the 100 freestyle and focus on the relays.

“It was ‘let’s not worry about the 100 freestyle here’ and while that sounds a little bit strange on the initial hearing of it — she’s the Olympic gold medallist at the world championship. Why wouldn’t she race that 100 free? — I guess it was a case of going into the 200 with not the same pressure as you would have in the 100 free,” Atkinson said.

“She makes the final and swims a best time, and then let’s try and win medals in all three relays.”

Oleksiak and teammates won bronze medals in both freestyle relays and the individual medley relay to mark the first time Canadian women reached the podium in all three at a world championship.

Oleksiak’s anchor leg in the 4 x 200 freestyle relay was the second-fastest time among all 32 in the field, Atkinson said.

Oleksiak emerged returned from Gwangju feeling confident she could swim fast. And then came COVID.

Her measuring stick during the pandemic was her training group at the Pan Am Sports Centre in Toronto.

That pod includes some of the world’s fastest women in water: Kylie Masse, Taylor Ruck, Sidney Pickrem.

“No one really lets up at any point,” Oleksiak said. “Everyone is pretty much always on.”

She chose not to race in the International Swimming League in Budapest in late 2020. Oleksiak says she didn’t want to interrupt Tokyo prep in Toronto’s 50-metre pool to race in a 25-metre pool.

Her winning time of 52.89 seconds in the 100-metre freestyle June 22 at Canadian trials was the fastest Oleksiak had gone since the 52.70 she and Manuel jointly posted in Rio.

Replicating Olympic success is rare because the athlete, competitors and the sport all change in intervening years, says Calgary sport psychologist Penny Werthner, who has worked with Canada’s national and Olympic teams since 1985.

“Folks that aren’t in the trenches of high-performance sport, they just see the TV piece and they think it’s easy,” she said. “It’s not easy ever winning a medal. It’s not easy making a final.

“For those who are actually able to replicate that in another Games is actually quite amazing.

“All the pieces that go into trying to do well in a second Games, and all the pieces that happen in the interim of four, and in this case five years, which is on some level a pretty lengthy period of time, and then from 16 to 21, it’s more complex because you’re also maturing and growing up in that time frame.”

Oleksiak will race the 100-metre and 200-metre freestyle in Tokyo. She’s a key cog in the Canadian women’s relay teams starting with Sunday’s 4 x 100 final.

She intends to lean into her hard training, and the experience she now possesses that she didn’t in 2016, for success in Tokyo.

“Knowing I have this massive chunk of training and we’ve been working so hard this whole year and we’ve really been focusing on a lot of small things and becoming the best athletes we can all be, I think that’s what I’m going to draw on this summer,” Oleksiak said.

“Just try and remember that I’ve put in the work already and what happens, happens.”

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